Margaret Sanger is why I only have six children instead of 18. Wish I could send her a card to thank her, but she now dwells in the spirit realm. Margaret coined the term “birth control.” I set out to learn about Margaret, a gesture of appreciation for what she did for women and her effort to provide sex education for children who were beginning to ask questions and teens who thought they knew it all.
When and how we learn where babies come from is undoubtedly a hump on our lifeline. Sitting with girlfriends and a bottle of wine, you may have told them how it came about. I share mine in my childhood memoir, how my friend, Labba, took on the job of enlightening me:
(Edith 10-12-years-old) My friend, Labba, told a small group of us girls that a sperm from the pabbi goes into the mamma. When parents go to bed, they kiss a lot. “How does it get inside the woman?” This was puzzling me. “Does a sperm leak out of the mouth, ears, or where?” I persisted.
Labba explained that the tilli (penis) went inside the part of us where we pee. This was too much. “I should have known that someone whose parents were alcoholics, wore filthy clothes, and had brown teeth would also be a liar. Maybe her parents, Mamma and Pabbi, no way. They would never do that to us. They care about us. I continued to listen.”
The afternoon upstairs in Labba’s little room went from pre-teen curiosity to disbelief and refusing to look my parents in the face until Pabbi said, “Edith, look at me when I speak to you.” My parents seemed baffled at this new behavior.
In high school, the older kids told us to look at page 82. They didn’t say read chapter six (in Icelandic, six is spelled sex), they said read page 82 (that happened to be in chapter six). When the teacher distributed the health books mine fell open to page 82. Assigning chapter six for homework, the next day Páll (the teacher) followed up asking if we had any questions. His usual wait time for answers was reduced from twenty seconds to sex. There were snickers, but no questions.
My one conversation with mamma took place in the basement laundry room. I sat on the first-floor cement open to the laundry room as she heaved sheets and clothes from one wooden barrel to another with an oar paddle. Fastidious about cleanliness, our laundry went through pre and post soaks. “Mamma, what’s it like to have a baby?” She strained to untangle sheets full of water refusing to separate. She didn’t answer. That wasn’t so unusual. Her concentration and work ethic was the stuff of legends.
“Mamma, does it hurt to have a baby?” Emptying one barrel to refill it with clean water, she stretched her already hunched back. “Having a baby is like having each leg tied to a different horse running in opposite directions.” I had no more questions, but she had one more piece of information to convey to her daughter on the subject of reproduction. “Sex is something you have to do to have a baby. No other way.” This was horrible, but there was good news in what she said. You could choose not to have sex, which I’d already decided anyway. It hurt me to think I could never have my own child.
Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. My sex talk with my daughters was more like Cliff Notes and didn’t include horses. When the two boys were young teenagers, it was Tim’s turn. With a drink in hand, family room door closed behind him, he told the boys to turn off the television. From the kitchen, I heard it go off but back on in an amazingly short time. Tim back in the kitchen said, “I told them I wanted to talk to them about sex and Jens said, ‘sure, what do you want to know.’” Not clear if it was Tim or the boys who were more relieved that this experience was behind them. Of course, I could be projecting my own less than stellar performance.
Progress is always resisted. We want to remain on solid ground, not rocked in a cradle of uncertainty. Today, we have Margaret Sanger to thank for making talking about IT moral and legal.
In 1900 or so, I suspect Margaret, a nurse, was not in high demand for her wisdom and giving speeches on sexual reproduction. So, she wrote to persuade people. From her book, What Every Mother Should Know, “There is scarcely any subject which is of greater importance or of greater interest to parents than this subject of teaching children the truth about life and birth.” She asserted that public schools all over the country cried for help to fight the degrading and immoral atmosphere—boys bringing to school “dirty” pictures. Education was the answer. Then she wrote Family Limitation and the powers to be, white men in power, had had just in enough. Undeterred, in 1912, she wrote and distributed a pamphlet, “What Every Girl Should Know,” and was indicted for mailing material advocating birth control. Charges were dropped. In 1914 she issued another pamphlet, “The Woman Rebel.” That was a ball thrown too far. She served 30 days in the Queen’s penitentiary. She left the US, returning when she thought it was safe to return.
After a brief teaching career, she practiced obstetrical nursing amid the squalor of New York’s Lower East Side, seeing up close the connection between poverty, lack of birth control, high rates of mother/child mortality, and death from illegal abortions. She worked with women overwhelmed by the burdens of poverty, too many children, no effective methods. Also, with religious groups and advocating changes in laws opposing birth control and a woman’s right to refuse her husband his “right”.
To make contraceptives available to all women was a revolutionary idea. Until now, it was considered a privilege of the wealthy, who also used abortion to control the number of children. Uneducated and poor women had no escape cards in their decks. (PubMed)
Sanger went on to found the American Birth Control League in 1921, which later better known as Planned Parenthood. She organized the first Population Conference in Geneva in 1927.
Critics, and she has many, hold she was rooted in eugenics. She writes that she welcomed the opportunity to speak at the woman’s branch of the KKK in New Jersey. She would talk to any group on the subject of birth control. The most often quoted line for pushing the anti-Sanger view is from a letter she wrote to Dr. Clarence Gample (1939) while setting up a clinic in Harlem. “We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.” On its own, it’s shocking. Further research revealed it was taken out of context which gives it another meaning. “…that while the colored Negroes have great respect for white doctors they can get closer to their own members and more or less lay their cards on the table which means their ignorance, superstitions, and doubts. We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” For a scholarly research summary go to PubMed.
Learning about Margaret Singer, I uncovered a kindle copy of her book, What Every Mother Should Know; or/ How Six Little Children Were Taught the Truth and downloaded it. Never too late to make up for a poor performance informing my daughters about the bees and the birds. After reading chapters, Mr. and Mrs. Buttercup, The Toads and Frogs, The Birds and Their Families, I concluded there was not a need to sit down with them. My daughters had figured it out for themselves. But I did learn a few tid bits I’m anxious to share with Tim.